A couple of weeks ago, a tragic incident involving the death of 58-year old Korean American Ki Suk Han in the New York subway prompted a wave of soul-searching, particularly with respect to media’s treatment of Asians.
The death of Mr. Han on December 3 was in itself horrific. After having reportedly been engaged in a fight with his wife earlier that evening, the father from Queens was on the subway around 12:30 am when he got into a heated verbal altercation with a young African-American male, Naeem Davis. The words apparently turned ugly because Mr. Han was eventually pushed onto the tracks by Mr. Davis where moments later Mr. Han was hit by an on-coming train and killed. For more details on the story, see HERE.
What turned this story into a greater societal soul-searching exercise, however, was the New York Post’s incredibly tasteless cover photo on the story the very next day. Here’s the image:
There was significant soul-searching following the release of this story and horrific image. Key questions were: (1) why did no one help Mr. Han in the 20 or so seconds before he was struck? (2) why did the freelance journalist R. Umar Abbasi take a picture, instead of help Mr. Han? (3) is it appropriate for the NY Post to print such a picture? and (4) would the NY Post printed this picture if Mr. Han was a different race?
There are many explanations/excuses for the first question, ranging from the Kitty Genovese Bystander Effect to people were just too shocked to realize what was happening until it was too late. As for Mr. Abbasi, his excuse was that he was flashing his camera light at the train conductor to get his attention, not take a picture of the gruesome accident with ulterior motives. Verdict is still out on that story. For the third question, the answer is an unequivocal NO. It is not appropriate to print a picture of a man’s last minutes for a cheap kick, but what more can you expect from a newspaper owned by Newscorp? The New York Post is not exactly known for quality news coverage and sensible analysis.
The question I will focus on today though, is the 4th one – would the NY Post have printed this picture if Mr. Han was not an Asian? And what does this say about media’s treatment of Asians in general? This question was prompted by a commentator on CNN, and was also, surprisingly, taken up a subject of heated and passionate discussion on Weibo and Sina (China’s version of twitter and blogger). ChinaHush did a good feature on the Chinese people’s discussion of Western media’s portrayal of Asians. Unexpectedly, the death of Mr. Han has touched off a nerve for Chinese people (and not just Asian Americans).
Truth to be told, I don’t know enough about the case to conclude whether or not Western media has a bias towards Asians. After all, we have to remember not to measure an entire industry by its lowest common denominator (as Western Media: New York Post/any Newscorp publication). I’m entirely positive New York Times wouldn’t be caught dead printing such a sensationalist cover photo (well…. almost positive). I can’t say that I think there is no bias against Asians. For example, I’ve yet to find an Asian female character in popular media/entertainment that isn’t (1) a hyper-sexualized geisha, and/or (2) socially mal-adjusted psycho nerd. However, that is not necessarily demonstrative of an overwhelming bias against Asians, but rather a tendency towards playing up racial stereotypes for brainless entertainment (and is exercised by American media against ALL racial/social groups, not just Asians).
What’s more interesting to me about this case is the degree of interest Chinese people (actually from China) take in Western media’s portrayal of Asian and the solidarity bond they feel with Asians in general (whether or not they are Chinese – since Mr. Han is Korean – and whether or not they actually live in China). This sense of anti-Western media glare actually does fit with my experience with Chinese attitudes towards Western news. Foreigners often deride Chinese news agencies as puppets of the Communist Party/government incapable of original thought or truths (although there are signs that this is changing….) What we don’t realize is that Chinese people think that way of their own media as well. They are fully aware of the censorship apparatus in which they live. HOWEVER, one would think that if the Chinese don’t respect their own media, then they MUST admire Western media. BUT actually, they DON’T. Given their fundamental views of ANY media as being untrustworthy and biased, most Chinese that I have met do not 相信 (believe in) Western media stories either. They view Western news with suspicion because they believe that Western media has a bias against China, Chinese, and any non-Euro culture in general.
And who can blame them? Constantly barraged with stories from Western news agencies which either portray Chinese people/government actions as (1) corrupt/evil/possibly dastardly plotting the downfall of America, (2) backwards “third world” poor who need the protection of enlightened European do-gooders, (3) irrationally uncultured nouveau-riche who are destroying the world with their rabid consumption, and/or (4) a dumb/mute homogenous mass with no respect for diversity —> it is easy to see why the Chinese audience has turned away from Western media. It is rare and far in between to see a genuinely insightful article about the Chinese people who fully encompasses their richness of diversity, views, and mercurial change. (Although Jeff Wasserstrom’s “Chinese Characters” is a good step in this direction. )
I do not have enough evidence or training to draw overwhelming conclusions about the existence of bias against Asians in Western media. I do think however, that the Chinese people’s reaction to the tragic death of Mr. Han and subsequent media exploitation of his death as a telling indicator of Chinese people’s beliefs about Western Media bias. It is an important lesson to take to heart, if the rest of the world really wants to communicate effectively with the citizens of this massive country.